The Emergence of Brandon Crawford

The best season by a shortstop in San Francisco Giants history, by WAR, was Rich Aurilia in 2001, when he recorded 6.7 WAR on the strength of 146 OPS+ and above-average defense. Aurilia is also likely the best shortstop over his Giants career, since the franchise moved from New York. At any rate it’s a relatively close race between Aurilia (who’s next best season, by WAR, was the previous one, with 2.4) and Chris Speier, who has the second- and third-best seasons by a shortstop in SF Giants history. Jose Uribe probably is third. Point is, the franchise does not exactly have a long tradition of outstanding shortstops.

(Photo by SD Dirk/flickr)

(Photo by SD Dirk/flickr)

After his home run in the 4th inning on Apr. 16, Brandon Crawford is hitting .304/.407/.500 in 54 plate appearances. Now, in truth, there is nothing we can read into that. Voros’ Law states that anyone can do just about anything in 60 plate appearances. However, I’ll be darned if it hasn’t been a good deal of fun so far. Brandon Crawford is an exceedingly fun player to root for, in no small part because he is a defensive wizard. In the years I have been a Giants fan, I have seen the following shortstop (in chronological order): Royce Clayton (distant past), Aurilia, Omar Vizquel, Juan Uribe, Edgar Renteria, and Crawford. Of that group, Vizquel was the best defender — he did win 2 Gold Gloves as a Giant and the defensive stats, unreliable as they are, back up the assertion that he was still a superior defensive shortstop. But Crawford isn’t far behind. I’d say that Vizquel had slightly better hands and instincts, but Crawford has an enormously better arm. And as much as I love a guy that does nothing but mash taters — Blogmother Mac teases me about this on Twitter constantly — Crawford’s defense is immensely fun to watch.

Crawford’s defense was, by and large, a known quantity when he debuted almost two years ago, and despite a brief run-in with the yips last April has been as advertised. His bat was the question mark. After he was rushed to the majors in 2011 — he only had 1081 plate appearances in the minors, or roughly two season’s worth — he hit terribly. A 67 wRC+ is really awful, but there was a couple bright spots. One was his .228 BABIP, which indicated a good deal of bad luck that stood to improve just because of random chance. Another was his outstanding defense, which let the Giants run him out there day-in, day-out without having to worry about his bat too much. And it paid off — he continued to play outstanding defense, his BABIP normalized (all the way up to .308), and his wRC+ rose to 79. All told, Crawford was worth 2.5 wins last year according to Baseball-Reference. Not bad from your #8 hitter.

Crawford turned 26 this offseason, and he made some comments about how coming into he felt better than he had at any point in his professional career. Players say this kind of hogwash all the time, and usually I’m inclined to disregard it, but he’s come out of the gates absolutely on fire so far. He’s got a team-leading 156 wRC+, and thus far this season he’s gotten into some really good habits. Last year, he swung at 33.4% of pitches he saw that were out of the strike zone – far above the league average. This, no doubt, contributed to his 20% K-rate. This year, he’s cut his O-Swing% (percentage of pitches out of the strike zone swung at) but more than 6.4%, undoubtedly a factor in his 12% walk rate this season.

Crawford’s hot start has led to speculation as to what he could be. Twitter has been abuzz with the possibility of a 20 HR season, or a 100 OPS+ or better, from Crawford this season, and to be honest such assertions are ridiculous. I mean, the guy’s got a .343 BABIP for goodness sake. If Crawford hits 10 home runs this season I’d wager it’ll be his career high. But here’s the thing: the Giants don’t need Brandon Crawford to hit .300 or 20 home runs or anything like that. He’s already a terrifically valuable asset for the Giants to have. If Crawford can continually put up an OPS+ in the 80-85 range and play +10 defense at shortstop, he’ll be worth around 3 wins a year. That’s outstanding production from a guy who’s usually going to hit eighth in your lineup most days.

I’ll admit, I was very skeptical Crawford was ever going to be of much value when he came up in 2011. To me, he seemed like the kind of all-glove, no-hit shortstop that a lot of teams have stashed away in case of emergency, who could be used as a placeholder until a more permanent replacement could be found (oh, how I pined for J.J. Hardy). But Crawford has matured nicely into a player who’s more than an automatic out at the bottom of the lineup, and should be a fixture at short for many years to come.

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